Six people gathered at Barnabas Health Hospice and Palliative Care Center in West Orange on Monday night, Sept. 10, just one week before the start of Rosh Hashana. All had recently suffered a loss, and all had come to a one-day workshop to help them get through the High Holy Day season.
Members of the group discussed ways of coping with their private burdens during a period when other Jews were preparing to celebrate the new year, welcome family for festive meals, and see friends at synagogue.
The 90-minute session covered general theories of grief “to set people at ease, and know that what they are going through is normal, and that they are not crazy,” said Rabbi Moshe Abramowitz, director of pastoral care at the Barnabas center and coordinator of its Jewish Hospice Service. “We talked about whether shiva was helpful, whether people might want some kind of memorial. Everything Jewish tradition teaches about loss was interwoven into the session.”
Many area organizations, both Jewish and secular — including Barnabas as well as National Council for Jewish Women and Jewish Family Service of MetroWest — offer bereavement groups that meet for many weeks at a time (most requiring 10-12 participants in order to be successful). Jewish Family Service of Central NJ has offered such groups in the past, and currently offers individual counseling for bereavement.
What set last week’s single session apart is that it focused narrowly on coping with the High Holy Day season, and had no minimum number of participants.
An additional session at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch a few days earlier attracted a similar number of people.
“Holidays in particular can be very difficult because they are a time spent with family, and the sights, sounds, and smells around us may bring up memories that can jolt us painfully,” said Carol Billet-Fessler, associate director of JFS of Central NJ. “The key is to be gentle with yourself. If you are jolted, remember that it’s okay to have a strong reaction,” she said.
The ongoing bereavement groups run by JFS of MetroWest often deal with issues that come up around the holidays.
“Frequently there’s a heightened sense of loss when there is an empty place at the table,” said Anne Mollen, a senior clinician at JFS of MetroWest, who facilitates most of its bereavement groups.
Both family service agencies are beneficiaries of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Mollen recalled a widowed former client who was worried that her family, concerned about her vulnerability, would be reluctant to discuss their loss. Together, she and Mollen decided the woman would start the holiday meal by acknowledging her spouse’s absence.
“She used the remarks to give people permission to acknowledge that they all had feelings and didn’t have to keep them hidden,” Mollen said. “They needed to see she would not collapse. It ended up being a great relief.”
Abramowitz noted that hospices and other facilities host similar workshops around major secular and Christian holidays, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day.
“The magic aspect is that people become a mini-group, even in this short amount of time,” said Abramowitz.
He related a story about a woman in the West Orange session who had lost her father. “By the end of the session, three people were helping her identify resources and support. That’s what groups do. They find ways to help each other and help themselves as well,” he said.
At NCJW, peer-led bereavement groups, facilitated by a trained leader, yield many conversations about grief at holiday times, according to case manager Heidi Neuberg.
Neuberg, a licensed rehabilitation counselor, said some people experiencing grief tend to isolate themselves. The holidays are a good time for them to reconnect with community, with some advance planning. “Don’t let the holidays creep up on you so that the days arrive without a plan,” she said. “Decide if you will go to synagogue or temple the way you have in the past or if, because of the grief, you might consider changing the tradition and traveling to where other family and friends are.”
Abramowitz learned in the workshop he offered that Passover, even more than the High Holy Days, can be a major hurdle for people in bereavement, in part because it is such a widely celebrated and home-centered holiday. “People felt they couldn’t make Pesach — that they didn’t have the strength or the emotional fortitude to face the holiday,” he said.
As a result, in addition to offering the workshop again next fall, he said, he is hoping to offer it about a month before Passover as well.